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02.04.18 Don’t Hedge your Bets Genesis 20:1-18 Sermon Summary

by on February 5, 2018

Note: this sermon was delivered in first person as Abraham. The first eight verses were read in advance. The last verses are embedded in the message.

Summary Points

  • How the Bible is about faith, not history
  • Biblical Faith: God saves us from threats to his promises
  • External threats to God’s promises: Things outside our control
  • Internal threats: Our presumption that God belongs only to us
  • How forgiveness sets us free

My walk of faith took me to Gerar, the land of the Philistines. The king there was named Abimelech and we got into a little trouble.

But before I share this story, a reminder about these ancient texts. According to your calendar I lived about 2000 years before Jesus. According to the last 200 years of biblical scholarship, my stories were written about 500 years before Jesus. They went through a lot of “tellings” and were compiled by others—many others. They had various interests and agendas.

Some were interested in keeping as much of the material as they had received, even if some of the details didn’t match up. Others were interested in harmonizing all the accounts. Some were interested in using my story from the past to comment on their story in the present, so they mixed some of their details into my story.

So to say any of this is historical by the standards of your present day is hopeful at best. But I’m here today as a character in a larger story—a story of God’s relationship with humanity and with creation. That story encompasses all the others whether they actually happened or not.

And the main story of this God, from my stories to Jesus’ story to your own, is that God rescues us from existential threats. God saves us from things that threaten our existence. Some of these threats come from outside and some come from inside. Let me give you an example of each—an external threat and an internal threat.

The external threat in this story is when Sarah became a concubine of Abimelech. Think about it: The woman who was to mother our child of blessing, this child who was going to bless the whole world, now is part of Abimelech’s harem. That could have been the beginning of the end.

But God the Savior stepped in. God visited Abimelech in a dream and warned him. “Don’t get involved with Sarah. She’s married to Abraham.” Even before that, God had intervened. He distracted Abimelech so he wouldn’t approach Sarah.

Well Abimelech called me in. He said to me, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done. What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?”

See when we migrated to Gerar I presented Sarah as my sister, not my wife. So Abimelech just took her. So I said to him, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” And then I told him, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.”

This little story about Sarah being my sister and not my wife—we had agreed to it. I said to Abimelech, “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to Sarah, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’“

We did this back in Egypt when the famine forced us out of Canaan also. This is an example of an external threat from which God saved us. There were lots of external threats, from Sarah being a part of Pharaoh’s harem, to being a part of Abimelech’s harem, all jeopardizing the promise of God.

And that’s what the Bible means by faith: A promise from God, a belief on our part, and then threats to the promise—the testing of our faith. These are things outside our control that make us question, “How can God pull this off now?”

But when God does pull it off, like when God stayed Abimelech’s hand upon Sarah and warned him in a dream to leave her alone, the story of God’s faithfulness continues. And these stories get passed down all the way to you so you can trust in God’s promises even when outside circumstances threaten you.

Now that you know this you can read these stories from the Bible this way. “How is God keeping the promise alive?” That’s a much better question than, “Did this really happen?”

So let me tell you about the internal threat—and I’m not proud of this. Because not only are there things outside of our control that threaten the promises of God. But there are things within us also.

One of the reasons we did what we did, telling local kings Sarah was my sister, is like I said because I thought, “There is no fear of God in this place.”

God had chosen ME. God had spoken to ME. I was the one following GOD. God had been leading ME. There was no way God was in these other places. And NO WAY they knew God, much less feared God. I mean—and we haven’t talked about this—but just look what God did to Sodom and Gomorrah! God and I were tight. I was God’s, and God was mine.

So when I encountered these foreigners—these strange places, and strange customs, and people who looked different than I—I just knew they didn’t fear God. So I hedged my bets. I said to God, “Hey, you know the stars in the sky and all that, but I know people. So let me handle this, because these people are savages. They don’t know you. You get us to the end of the journey. (What you folks have come to call heaven—some kind of life after death?) You get us to the end, but I’ll take care of things here in Garar.”

And that’s the threat to God’s promises that resides within us—within each and every one of us. “God, you take care of the big things and the things at the end. But we’ll take care of the other things, especially dealing with other people, people different than we are, because they don’t know you. They don’t know you like WE know you.”

Except here’s the thing: God KNEW Abimelech. And Abimelech did fear God. Abimelech listened to and trusted God more than I did! And so I learned something about God from Abimelech, and about myself. It is that God is much bigger than my experience, and much bigger than my thoughts about God.

There are external threats out there, but there are internal threats also, especially for folks like you who have all this history from my story through to yours. It’d be easy to think you’ve got it all figured out about God and about everyone else. But I learned something from the foreigner, and maybe you can too.

Because here’s what happened. Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to me, and restored Sarah to me. And he said, “My land is before you; “settle where it pleases you.” Then to Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

Abimelech forgave me and Sarah. We had judged him prematurely, and even though we didn’t ask for forgiveness, Abimelech forgave us. And what is more he offered us restitution. He set us up to live according to God’s calling upon us.

I learned from Abimelech about forgiveness and generosity. He gave us all these things out of his forgiveness and out of his generosity. And I thought, “Abimelech is like God: forgiving and generous even though I messed up.”

Well, out of the forgiveness and generosity I learned from Abimelech’s example I prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.

God IS faithful to his promises—even despite threats that come from the outside like circumstances we find ourselves in, and treats that come from the inside like lack of faith in God.

But what I found is that forgiveness is the carriage that moves us along. And forgiveness looks like many things: Like God stopping Abimelech from pursuing Sarah, or warning Abimelech in a dream. When God calls us to confess our sins and repent of our actions, forgiveness is already there.

Forgiveness looks like Abimelech speaking the truth and asking questions. Even though forgiveness exists there is also accountability. And we must try to make things right when an injustice has occurred.

Forgiveness looks like Abimelech restoring Sarah’s image and helping us so we wouldn’t have to be deceptive again. This is what prisons are supposed to do.

Forgiveness looks like my praying for God’s healing for Abimelech and Sarah’s being patient with me through all this.

All these different forms of forgiveness! You know what they have in common? Forgiveness makes us free—free to become the people God desires us to be. Forgiveness sets us free from the fear we have of others. Forgiveness sets us free from holding grudges which only prolongs our suffering. Forgiveness gives us freedom to be generous. Forgiveness sets us free to love—to love God, to love ourselves, and to love others like Abimelech.

As my descendants in the faith I pray you’ll have more faith than I, that you won’t hedge your bets, that you’ll be a forgiving people and a generous people. And like a Rabbi to come will say, that you will be a people known by your love.

A Postscript on Forgiveness from the Morning Prayer

We pray for those who hear your call to forgiveness with pain, disbelief, anger, or confusion. We know the church has often overlooked the rights of victims in the rush to forgiveness. Help us to view forgiveness first as a letting go of a past we cannot change. And allow us not to mistake forgiveness as a letting off of those who commit injustice. Help us to trust you through both—the process of healing, and the pursuit of righteousness.

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